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K is for Kapital, and Not in a Marxist Way

It would be silly of us not to

Last night, Berkeley Professor John Lie spoke about K-pop as part of the Center for Korean Research’s Colloquium Series on Korean Cultural Studies. B&W Culture Editor and Bwog K-pop beat chief Conor Skelding shuffled in a few minutes late. Note: check this September’s issue of The Blue & White for K-pop right here at Columbia.

“South Korea has become a culture that worships mammon,” at least according to John Lie. In a heavily engaging, anecdote-laden hour, Lie traced out what he thinks is South Korea’s cultural trajectory. It ends at modern Korea, a country governed by “state bureaucrats […] who feel that they need to brand Korea,” and who thus support K-pop, a genre that Lie contends is utterly artificial and expressly made for export. Lie fretted over a “fundamental divide between ‘traditional Korean identity’ and the ‘export orientation [that] is the master cultural reflex of South Korea.'” (An aside: Sacrificing identify at the altar of a “global brand?” I’ve heard that before.)

Lie started with traditional Confucian music, an elite, conservative, and boring genre filled with harmony, filial piety, and balance. He played just enough of a Youtube video that we heard a few woodblocks, and then cut it. Next came traditional, common, peasant music, which was a little livelier, but still reserved. These were trots—4-beat, pentatonic, traditional songs. In both genres, the performer stood entirely still, or maybe just clapped.

Thirty-odd minutes into his talk, I was waiting for some miraculous leap between contemporary K-pop and traditional trots, when Lie came out with it: “This all has nothing to do with K-pop.”

The gist of Lie’s argument is this: during SK’s military dictatorships of the late 20th century, basically all music was banned. Confucian music was banned, because it was too Japanese; folk music was too radical, American acts bared too much skin and brought “sex and drugs” along with it (a fear that wasn’t baseless, Lie added).

After the military dictatorship ended, TV was deregulated, and Korean teens started to watch MTV. A niche opened up which is now filled by modern “sugar-pop idol music,” with sharp dancing. Entrepreneurs moved in, founded media conglomerates, and developed what Lie identifies as a manufacturing process for pop stars.

South Korean media companies started to train prospective K-pop stars from childhood (fact: across all classes, the #1 desired career among Korean teens is that of an idol). Aspiring stars spend 5 years as trainees in a program jointly based on the training that soldiers and Olympic athletes received. There are 1000 graduate annually but only 20 to 30 of those make in on stage. Indie music, Lie says, doesn’t exist, and every aspect of performance and production is market-driven; in other words, South Korea is now a global capital of “neck up, not neck down” plastic surgery.

The current right-wing governors of Korea, who, to Lie’s bafflement, “still think they’re being Confucian,” and who would have decades ago banned K-pop, now support it with an annual $300 million in tax dollars. To Lie, this signifies the “emptiness of South Korean culture.” Somewhere along the line, tradition lost out to “success for its own stake,” of which Lie observes “no deeper analysis […] of what this means for Korean youths.” Alhough he was avowedly no fan of the military government, he appreciated how candidly and transparently they held their traditional—if restrictive—values.

What does the “K” in K-pop stand for, then? Lie says it’s “Kapital,” and not “Korean,” since the genre is entirely contrived and carved to fit a niche in the global market, and in fact is very traditionally un-Korean. Heavy stuff. “I’m sorry to make this talk boring,” he concluded. “It’s not really about K-pop.”

Seeds of a flash mob (that’s right, Cornell) via Flikr Creative Commons

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  • Alessio says:

    @Alessio I do not believe that Professor Lie said that “Confucian music was banned, because it was too Japanese”; he mainly asserted that Confucian music was not liked by the dictatorship because it was too traditional while the popular music with Japanese influence was banned. It is very interesting to notice that the K-in K-Pop might also mean Kapital Pop, however, I find Doctor Lie’s analysis too simplistic and a little superficial.

  • GS '14 says:

    @GS '14 Relevant and interesting:

    Psy: ‘”Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow,” he sighs, apparently deadly serious. It’s a jarring moment to see the musician drop his clownish demeanor and reveal the darker feelings behind this lighthearted-seeming song. Although, Hong noted, “hollow” doesn’t capture it: “It’s a word that’s a mixture or shallow or hollow or vain,” he explained.’

    1. indeed says:

      @indeed i believe Pitbull lamented the same thing at some point of his career.

  • Cat Sky Love says:

    @Cat Sky Love From your post, it seems that Lie thinks that what is happening with respect to K-pop and Korean society in general is a negative thing.

    I disagree. There is good materialistic capitalism and there is bad materialistic capitalism. What is happening in the US is bad; the abundance of evidence on social problems and inequalities prove this. What is happening in South Korea is largely good.

    Lie seems to think that tradition has it good points. It has almost none. In fact, that is why it is called tradition. Anything that cannot be proven to be useful, but you want to keep it, you call it tradition.

  • anon says:

    @anon so he didn’t discuss gangnam style at all?? psy is awesome.

  • Anonymous says:

    @Anonymous It is oversimplifying, perhaps even wrong, to state that all music was banned during the military dictatorship (60’s ~ early 90’s). Many of the best songs in modern Korean music came out during that period, but I won’t bore you with examples…It seems Prof. Lie skipped too many details to get across his point about the current vacuousness of K-pop.

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